Most scientists have it easy. By this I don’t mean that science is easy, but rather that scientists experiment on animals or OTHER people. Sure, these experiments are conducted following ethical guidelines to minimize pain to laboratory animals or to ensure the safety of patients, but the point of my argument is that it’s easy to administer a treatment that makes the entity receiving said treatment sick, or that carries other risks, when that entity is not yourself. However, throughout the history of science some scientists have broken through the wall of security that separated them from their test subjects and became their own lab rats, their own patients. These scientists who experimented on themselves conducted what I call “heroic science”. Let’s look at some of these characters.
In a previous post, I mentioned the case of the Australian physician Dr. Barry Marshall who wanted to convince skeptical fellow scientists that ulcers were not caused by excessive stomach acid secretion due to stress, but rather by a bacteria called Helicobacter pylori. Unable to develop an animal model or to obtain funds to perform a human study, he experimented on himself by drinking a broth containing Helicobacter Pylori isolated from a patient who had developed severe gastritis. He developed the same symptoms as the patient and was able to cure himself with antibiotics. As a result of this and other studies, Dr. Marshall was awarded a Nobel Prize in 2005.
Another of these heroic individuals was Werner Forssmann, who as a resident in cardiology in a German hospital wanted to try a procedure to insert a catheter through a vein all the way to the heart. Forssmann was convinced that if this could be done, it would allow doctors to diagnose and treat heart ailments. However, he could not obtain permission from his superiors to perform the experiment on a patient, so he tried it on himself. He made an incision in his arm, inserted a tube, and guiding himself with X-ray photography, he pushed the tube all the way to his heart. At the time there was a lot of opposition to Forssmann and his unorthodox methods, and although he persevered for some time, he became a pariah in the cardiology field and was forced to switch disciplines becoming a urologist. However, eventually other scientists refined the technique of catheterization described in his work, and developed it into valuable medical procedures that have saved many lives. Forssmann had the last laugh when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1956.
Most heroic science studies didn’t lead to a Nobel Prize, but some resulted in useful information. For example, John Stapp was an air force officer who experimented on himself to test the limits of human endurance in acceleration and deceleration experiments. He would be strapped to a rocket that would rapidly accelerate to speeds of hundreds of miles per hour and then stop within seconds. As a result of these brutal experiments, Stapp suffered concussions and broke several bones, but he survived, and the knowledge generated by his research eventually resulted in technologies and guidelines that today protect both car drivers and airplane pilots.
Despite its appearance of recklessness, heroic science is seldom performed in a vacuum, but rather it is performed by individuals who believe that, based on other evidence, nothing will happen to them.
Such was the case of Dr. Joseph Goldberger. In the early 1900s, the disease Pellagra afflicted tens of thousands of people in the United States. Dr. Joseph Goldberger performed experiments that indicated that Pellagra was a disease that arose due to a dietary deficiency rather than a germ. Faced with recalcitrant opposition to his ideas, Goldberger and his assistants injected themselves with blood from people afflicted with Pellagra and applied secretions from the patient’s noses and throats to their own. They also held “filth parties” where they swallowed capsules containing scabs obtained from the rashes that patients with Pellagra developed. None of them developed Pellagra. This along with other evidence demonstrated that Pellagra was not a disease carried by germs.
Another case was that of the American surgeon Nicholas Senn, who in 1901 implanted under his skin a piece of cancerous tissue that he had just removed from a patient. As he expected, he never developed cancer. Senn did this to demonstrate that cancer is not produced by a microbe, as it is not transmissible from one human to another, although at the time there were many pieces of evidence that taken together indicated that this was the case.
Of course, the mere fact that you perform heroic science doesn’t mean that you will reach the right conclusions.
Back in 1892 the German chemist Dr. Max von Pettenkofer disputed the theory that germs caused disease, and specifically that a bacterium called Vibrio cholerae caused the disease cholera. He requested a sample of cholera bacteria from one of the most prominent proponents of the theory, Dr. Robert Koch (who won the Nobel Prize in 1905), and when he got the sample he proceeded to ingest it! Pettenkofer fell slightly sick for a while, but did not develop cholera. He claimed that this proved his point, but the vast majority of the evidence generated by others indicated he was wrong, and his claim was never accepted.
A rather remarkable example of misguided heroic science is the work of Doctor Stubbins Ffirth. This individual studied the incidence of Yellow Fever cases in the United States back in the 1700s and noticed that Yellow Fever was much more prevalent during the summer months. Thus he developed the notion that Yellow fever was due to the heat stress of the summer months, and that therefore it was not contagious. To prove this he embarked on a series of gross experiments where he exposed himself to the bodily fluids of Yellow Fever patients. He drank their vomit, he poured it in his eyes, he rubbed it into cuts he made in his arms, he breathed the fumes from the vomit, and he also smeared his body with urine, saliva, and blood of Yellow Fever patients. Since he never contracted the malady, he concluded that Yellow Fever was not contagious. However, not only did Ffirth employ bodily fluids from late-stage Yellow Fever patients whose disease we now know not to be contagious, but he also missed the fact that Yellow Fever is transmitted by mosquitoes (see below), which is the reason why it’s more prevalent during the summer!
And finally, some of the scientists who engaged in heroic science suffered or died as a result of their experiments, but their sacrifice saved lives or resulted in advancements in the understanding of terrible diseases as the following two cases show.
In 1900 the army surgeon Walter Reed and his team in Cuba put to test the theory that Yellow fever was spread by mosquitoes, which at the time was not taken seriously by many scientists. They had mosquitoes feed on patients with Yellow Fever and then allowed the mosquitoes to bite several volunteers, among whom were two members of Reed’s team, the American physicians James Carroll and Jesse Lazear. Several of the people bitten by these mosquitoes developed Yellow Fever including Carroll and Lazear. Lazear died, but Carroll recovered, although he experienced ill health for the rest of his life. After this demonstration that Yellow Fever was transmitted by mosquitoes, a program of mosquito eradication was implemented that succeeded in dramatically reducing the cases of this disease.
In the Andes in South America there is a disease called Oroya Fever that periodically decimated the population in some localities. In the 1800s many physicians suspected that this disease was connected to another condition that led to the production of skin warts (Peruvian Warts), but no one had ever demonstrated they were connected. Daniel Alcides Carrión, a student of medicine in the capital of Peru, Lima, set out to prove that these two diseases were the same. He removed a wart sample from a patient with the skin condition and inoculated himself with incisions that he made in his arms. Carrión developed the symptoms of Oroya Fever thus demonstrating that these two diseases were different stages of the same disease, which is now called Bartonellosis. Unfortunately, he died from the disease, but he is hailed as a hero in Peru.
The above are but a fraction of the cases of individuals who risked life and limb performing heroic science. Many people criticize the usefulness of most cases of heroic science, especially when it just involves a sample size of “one”, and these critics have a point. In the end, heroic science should be held up to the same standards of rigor as regular science. However, whether those that experimented on themselves did it out of need to overcome bureaucratic obstacles, the belief in the correctness of their ideas, scientific curiosity, or because they were crazy, you always have a certain degree of admiration for the individuals who put their lives and health on the line for a scientific idea. They are willing to cross a line of security that most researchers wouldn’t dare to cross.
The Photograph of Barry Marshall by Barjammar is in the public domain. The photograph of Dr. Goldberger made for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is in the public domain. The photograph of Max von Pettenkofer is in the public domain in the US. The photograph of Jesse Lazear from the United States National Library of Medicine is in the public domain.